Pacquiao first ran for the filipino Congress in 2007. He lost, but it wasn’t because of a lack of popularity. Television crews follow him around in the Philippines, chronicling his every move. The nation goes quiet during his bouts and the government is shut down. When he returns home from a fight, he is greeted by the president and given a parade, during which hundreds of thousands of people line the streets of Manila for him.
On the contrary, the admiration he’s earned as a boxer was partly blamed for costing him a political victory: Voters feared that if he won, he’d stop fighting. Just like in the ring, Pacquiao came back from the defeat more determined. He ran again in May and campaigned tirelessly, running a much more sophisticated campaign than during his first attempt. This time, he won.
When I spoke to him as he was readying for his fight against Margarito, he was just as interested in talking about his legislative agenda as he was his upcoming match. He told me about his plans to build a hospital and a college in his province, and about the two bills he has already passed. He was particularly proud of his work fighting human trafficking. “Lots of recruiters recruit Filipinos abroad, but when [the workers] get there, they don’t have any salary,” Pacquiao says. When asked if other politicians had underestimated him, he laughs. “I am very active in Congress,” he says, “and they didn’t think I was going to be like that.”
A deeply religious man, Pacquiao has a kind of devotion to his people unseen in most politicians. Out of his own pocket, he has paid for medical and funeral expenses for the poverty-stricken in the southern Philippines. Many of his associates worry that he will give all his money away. Some people have compared him to Nelson Mandela.
“When he’s 35, he can run for Senate,” says boxing promoter Bob Arum, who tagged along with Pacquiao on the campaign trail. “And when he’s 40, I am sure he’ll be president of the Philippines.”
While Pacquiao has grown more serious in the last few years, he is still quick to laugh — though his laugh would be more accurately described as a giggle. He likes to goof off and have a good time. During a dinner I once had with him, he began belting out the Eagles’ “Hotel California” on a karaoke machine as everyone in his entourage joined in. He enjoys a good practical joke as well. At Nat’s Thai Food, the Hollywood restaurant where he dines after every workout for the 10 weeks he trains in L.A. before a fight, he often sneaks a utensil into the coat of one of his friends and then has the proprietor catch the person “shoplifting,” at which point he’ll shake his head disapprovingly before bursting out laughing. He acts like a happy-go-lucky kid — likely because he never had the chance to be one while he was growing up.
In June, while receiving his Fighter of the Decade award at the Boxing Writers Association of America banquet at New York’s Roosevelt Hotel, the PacMan talked about his four children, whose names are tattooed on his arm, and how his own impoverished youth molded him as a boxer — and as a person. “Poverty confronted my family,” he said. “Poverty challenged my youth. In my journey, I was pressed but not crossed. In my struggle, I was knocked down but not destroyed. I confronted poverty by trusting God and dreaming big.”
As he spoke, a crowd of Filipinos waited outside to catch a glimpse of him and his wife, Jinkee. Though the people he was addressing in the nicely outfitted banquet hall were all boxing writers and retired fighters, in a very real sense, Pacquiao was speaking to his countrymen — those waiting outside and those across an ocean. “Greatness lies not in being strong but in the right dose of strength,” he said. “Tonight, I recognize the contributions of those who used their strength to make a difference.”
GARY ANDREW POOLE is the author of PacMan: Behind the Scenes with Manny Pacquiao — The Greatest Pound-for-Pound Fighter in the World (Da Capo Press). He has written for Time, Esquire, The New York Times and The Atlantic.